Enhanced Visual Instructional Plans

By Wendy Petti

This adaptation of a Visual Instructional Plan includes a thinking prompt as well.

A Visual Instructional Plan (VIP) is a set of step-by-step visual prompts (using a minimum of words). Visual Instructional Plans (VIPs) -- as described in Fred Jones's article, Weaning the Helpless Handraisers, Part 2: Teaching to the Visual Modality, condensed from his award-winning book, Tools for Teaching -- are a highly effective teaching tool.

Visual Instructional Plans provide a clear outline of what a student is expected to do. In many math classrooms, we find students who have learned to do the steps without always understanding why. When a skill is revisited some weeks after it has seemingly been mastered, we might see "careless" errors resulting from incomplete understanding.

To illustrate, let's look at the sample long division VIP (illustrated by Brian Jones) provided by Fred Jones in the article mentioned above:

This VIP clarifies the steps of long division with brilliant simplicity, but we already can see opportunities for error. Six "goes into" 49 eight times; the 8 is written above the division bracket, but above which digit and why?

Let's take a look at the same sample in what I'm calling an "Enhanced VIP," supplementing "what to do" with "what to think" and a visual demonstration of "why it works."

Often, why a process works can be illustrated in more than one way. In one variation, instead of writing 4, 9, and 5 under the place value headings, we could have written 400, 90, and 5; this variation is included in the printables. In another possible variation, the third column of the sample could use graphics of base ten blocks to demonstrate what is going on in each step.

The italicized text in the table demonstrates that there also can be more than one way to think about the steps in a process. An Enhanced VIP provided to students should model one clear thought per step.

An Enhanced VIP might seem like a contradiction, since one aim of a VIP is to minimize words. Think of an Enhanced VIP as a transitional tool for coaching students as needed while they are learning a new skill; to prompt clear mathematical thinking along with "doing." Word choices do matter and they influence our thought processes. Using the long division example, I prefer to "bring in" rather than "bring down" the next digit. "Bring down" only describes what we are doing on paper. "Bring in" describes what we are doing conceptually. If we set up the same problem with base ten blocks, we "bring in" the ones and trade remaining tens for ones as we get ready to divide again.

Fred Jones advocates a "Say, See, Do" approach to instruction, in which three modalities are tapped nearly simultaneously in each chunk of the lesson: students listen as the teacher verbally explains a step ("say") while modeling ("see"), and then the students "do" the same step themselves. This three-modality sequence is repeated many times during a lesson. The VIP is a concise reminder of the "see" and "do" components of the cycle. An Enhanced VIP brings in a reminder of the "say" portion of each chunk, highlighting a key feature of the explanation. It reminds students of the thinking and reasoning that accompany each step. Including that reminder helps us tap three modalities simultaneously and helps the "saying" become part of the "doing." It prompts students to "say" what they are doing and why, as they once again "hear" the explanation in their minds.

We can take that reinforcement one step further and ask students to express the "what" and "why" aloud as they practice each step. In partner pairs, one student might "say" and "do," while the other partner listens for clear expression of thought, using the Enhanced VIP as a clear model. Partners can alternate roles as they work through a problem set. Check for this clear thinking as you move through the classroom. Ask students to narrate what they are thinking as they are doing the steps. Listen for words that indicate an understanding of place value and processes.

After students consistently demonstrate clear mathematical thinking, they might hide the other columns or move to a condensed VIP prompt until they no longer need prompts.

Visual Instructional Plans and Enhanced VIPs might be displayed via chalkboard, bulletin board, projected image, Web page, or handout. Handouts ensure that every student will have support for independent practice at home and at school. VIP or Enhanced VIP handouts can be kept in a small pocket folder with brads for easy reference and transport. Enhanced VIPs also are a useful review tool and can become a helpful reference for parents.

Developing Enhanced VIPs might seem labor intensive. Even developing VIPs without the thinking and/or explaining components takes planning time. Some mathematical processes might be well-supported with a two-column prompt. We can enlist students in enhancing VIPs as needed. You can provide the visual steps in the first column and then flesh out the thinking in the other columns as a class or small group activity. You can take digital photos of manipulatives, modeling each step of a process and insert those images into the "why" column. As you begin to use VIPs, focus on developing Enhanced VIPs for the lessons that have been most problematic in the past.

The clear thinking and proving that we model for our students serve to clarify and crystallize our own thinking and help us boil challenging lessons down to their essence. Visual Instructional Plans and Enhanced VIPs empower both students and teachers.